Decoding M.Bulgakov’s The Crimson Island
The Crimson Island, written by the author of Master and Margarita, remains one of the most mysterious plays of world. Looking quite innocent on the surface, the play, which saw the stage just for one theatrical season, only in Moscow, was first published as a satirical sketch on 20th April 1924 in the newspaper NAKANUNE. Bulgakov, for that matter was often writing various types of sketches in various newspapers for his livelihood.
A doctor by profession, Mikhail Afanasevich Bulgakov (1891-1940), started his literary career by writing small autobiographical sketches. He was also connected with the railways’ journal GUDOK and regularly contributed satirical sketches to such journals as NAKANUNE and ROSSIA. Among his early famous works Notes of a Young Doctor, White Guards, Diaboliad, and Theatrical Novel etc. were published in the Soviet Union. The last work of Bulgakov which was published in his motherland was his story Morphine. In early 20’s he wrote a variety of satirical works, most famous among them were Fateful Eggs (which was published in 1925) and Heart of a Dog (which was not published in the Soviet Union). These two novellas reflect the socio-political life of that time. The author used scientific fantasy for depicting the bitter reality of the NEP period.
Along with satirical sketches, short stories and novellas M.Bulgakov penned down a few plays as well in the 20’s. Days of Turbins, Zoya’s Flat, White Guards etc. were staged in different theatres of Moscow but The Crimson Island proved controversial. It could be shown in one of the theatres of Moscow just for one theatrical season and was never published in the Soviet Union. Comments of author, director etc. can be seen in the margin of the manuscript.
The play The Crimson Island staged in the Kamernyi Theatre of Moscow in Dec 1928 was developed around the satirical sketch (published in 1924). The sketch describes very innocently the history of Soviet Union up to 1924. Consisting of three parts and fourteen sections the sketch has a subtitle which reads like this:
THE CRIMSON ISLAND
Novel by Comrade Jules Verne
Translated from French into Aesopian
This subtitle speaks a lot about the new proletarian literature. Bulgakov made full use of this subtitle when he converted this sketch into drama. Here author of the play, Dymogatskyi, is introduced as “Comrade Dymogatskyi, who is also Jules Verne.” Bulgakov laughs at those proletarian writers who wrote under this very name and also various pseudonyms as well from European literature. In fact young soviet writers, especially proletarian writers, had a fascination for copying not only names but also the themes from works of well known European writers.
The style of the sketch is similar to A.P.Chekhov’s parody Flying Islands which was introduced by the author as An Essay by Jules Verne, translated by A.Chekhonte. Using minute fantastic details for exposing reality, Bulgakov, like Chekhov, had set a particular goal for himself. But while Chekhov aimed at exposing fantasy like reality, Bulgakov’s target was manifold. He used each word, each phrase, each episode with an intention of laughing at writers, theatrical life, bureaucracy and put forth a demand for freedom of creation. The subtitle, which led to the creation of pseudo Jules Verne, points at the tendency of ‘Julevernovshina’. This ‘Julevernovshina’ was at the core of neo-proletarian writers, who “manufactured” socially oriented texts by copying ideas from European literature. This practice was in abundance in the soviet literature of the 20’s. One of Bulgakov’s friends Yuri Slyozkin even translated his name into French as George (for Yuri) Delarm (larme-Slyozi-tears) and published two novels using this pseudonym. This parody under the subtitle ‘Comrade Jules Verne’ was directed against the contemporary prose and (after conversion into a play) against theatrical life and bureaucracy as well.
As a satirical sketch, The Crimson Island had a not so complicated theme. The names used for places, characters, as well as events, are taken from popular works of Jules Verne (mostly from his Children of Captain Grant). But a careful reading reveals their true identity. As mentioned earler, the sketch consists of three parts. First part is titled as Explosion of a Volcano; Second – Island in Flames and the third part has The Crimson Island as its title. It needs more than one reading to decipher the meaning of these titles: First title means Outbreak of Revolution; second – country in the grip of Revolution and third-Country of the Reds or the Soviet Union.
Without naming any persons or places, the author tells the readers about an island which was situated in the otherwise stormy Pacific Ocean. The combination of Storm and Calm (Pacific) indicates the turbulent ancient history of Russia. This island was inhabited by the tribe of red Ethiopians who were glorious natives of this land. By using the adjectives red (Krasnyi) and glorious (Slavni, which sounds nearer to Slavyane) Bulgakov at once gives clue to understand about whom the narration is going to be. Slavyane were the native Russians and reds were none other than communists. In order to clarify this point further, author says that the other two groups of people who lived on that island were white blackmoors and blackmoors of indefinite colour who were also called double-dyed. Having described the inhabitants by colours Bulgakov adds that though the reds outnumbered whites and the double-dyed ones, it was the white blackmoors who were ruling the island. Their king was Sizi-Buzi, commander of armed forces was Riki Tiki Tavi.
Riki Tiki Tavi was the faithful mongoose in R. Kipling’s story, based on a tale from the Panchtantra, where the mongoose killed the kobra when it tried to attack the little child of his master. The choice of this name for the commander of armed forces is significant. In the sketch Riki goes to the Europeans to seek their help in fighting the Red Ethiopians. He participates in the armed expedition to the Crimson Island and is killed by the knife of a white blackmoor. IN the dramatised version Bulgakov changes his name a little and calls him Likki-Tikki. Likki-Tikki understands the national interests and goes back to the side of Red Ethipians and saves the island from foreign intervention. Bulgakov, while introducing characters of his drama mentions that there is an “army of blackmoors, negative in the beginning but repentant towards the end”. This explanation about the blackmoors’ army and behaviour of Likki-Tikki is itself an irony of the works of proletarian writers where the transformation of whites (anti revolutionaries, intelligentsia) into conscious supporters of the Revolution occupies the central place.
Bulgakov further says that while the Reds were busy with cultivation, fishing and collecting tortoise eggs, the whites enjoyed the fruits of their labour.
An Englishman, Lord Glinervan accompanied by a Frenchman came to this island and established business relations with Sizi Buzi. A major part of the profit went to Sizi Buzi and his courtiers, while the Reds received only nuts.
In section 3 of part I Bulgakov writes that Sizi Buzi and his commander used to stay at the foot of a volcano, which had extinguished 300 years ago. The seat of the ruler at the ‘foot of extinguished volcano’ points to the 300 years old rule of the Romanov dynasty which had come to power after a long bloody struggle and which was overthrown after the October Revolution. To show that the Romanovs always lived under some threat or the other Bulgakov chose to show the seat of the Ruler at the foot of a volcano, which erupted after a span of 300 years killing Sizi Buzi and his clan. This time the eruption symbolises Revolution wherein the last Czar was overthrown and killed.
To depict the times of provisional (Interim) government which took over soon after the Revolution and also Kerensky – head of this Interim Government Bulgakov devoted two sections in Part I. He writes:
“Soon after the eruption the ethopians were in a state of shock. But the next moment every one – The Reds as well as the Whites – thought, “what next?” But they were again taken aback when the lazy drunkard and famous as double-dyed, a black moor Kiri Kuki came forward all in red and announced:
“Now since we have got independence, I thank you all.”
No one could understand why should Kiri Kuki say “thanks”, but they shouted, “Hurray!” (p. 484)
Kiri Kuki declared himself head of the government. First thing that he did was to name the island as ‘Crimson Island’. He promised to distribute vodka to every one, which he imported by exporting maize from the country. This resulted in shortage of food and unrest among the reds and one evening the whole island was seen in flames. Kiri Kuki fled away and the whole world was shocked after receiving telegram from the correspondent of “Times” who was on the Crimson Island:
“Ethopians have accomplished a Great Revolution. Island in flames, Plague epidemic, mountains of dead”. (p.486)
In the second and third parts the author describes how the absconding Whites reach Lord Glinervan and request for an armed intervention. How the intervention takes place, how does it fail, and in the meanwhile how the island achieves great scientific progress, health and prosperity. In a span of seven years “The Crimson Island” became a self-dependent, flourishing island. Obviously this was the sequence of historical events between 1917 and 1924.
Had M. Bulgakov stopped here, it would have become a controversial, satirical masterpiece. But he developed it into a drama and while doing so he included many more characters and included some very fine dialogues in it. The very title of this play also underwent some change. Now it read like this:
Grand rehearsal of the play
Written by Citizen Jules Verne
In the theatre of Gennadi Panfilovich,
With music, volcanic eruption and English sailors.
In four acts with Prologue and Epilogue
Being grand rehearsal of a drama in a theatre, the play has now acquired a double structure – ‘drama within a drama’, by virtue of which it was imperative to show the author, the director of theatre, people’s commissar who would grant permission for staging the play, workers of the theatre and so on.
Apart from Sizi Buzi and Likki Tikki Bulgakov included Gennadi Panfilovich – Director of the theatre, who plays the role of Lord Glinervan; Vasili Dymogatskii, who is Jules Verne and plays Kiri Kuki, Metelkin Nikanor, assistant of the director, who plays the roles of servant Pasporta, as well as talking parrot. There is also Betsi, maid servant of Lady Glinervan and Savva Lukich – the people’s commissar. Inclusion of these additional characters and behind the stage dialogues depicts some harsh realities of the socio-cultural as well as political life of that time.
Savva Lukich is the backbone of all cultural events of that time (and also of future). Without his approval, nothing can be stages or printed. Gennadi Panfilovich is trying to get clearance for “The Crimson Island”, but Savva Lukich has to go to Crimea. The writer Jules Verne (Dymogatskii) has not yet brought the script. The roles have to be distributed. Only a few hours are left for Savva Lukich’s departure. So, the experienced director, Gennadi Panfilovich, decides to present grand rehearsal before Savva Lukich in record time. In between Savva Lukich has to be served tea; taken for a round in the ship (which was to be shown on the stage). So the roles are distributed like this:
Panfilovich decides to play Lord Glinervan. Writer Jules Verne decides to play Kiri Kuki because the main actor of the theatre is missing. When it comes to distributing the roles of Lady Glinervan and Betsy – the better and prestigious role obviously goes to the director’s wife. Bulgakov uses this episode by putting a dialogue in Sizi Buzi’s mouth:
“I had warned you Gennadi – don’t marry an actress…you will always find yourself in such embarrassing situation.” (p.303) This was a mockery of well known directors of that time – Meyerhold and Tairov – whose wives were actresses.
The more talented actress was made to play maid servant Betsy.
One sentence in the Prologue by Gennadi Panfilovich reveals a lot. Panfilovich receives a few phone calls – requests for free passes. He scold almost everyone by saying that his theatre never gives free passes. But the last telephone call from the Incharge of Water Works forces him to change his tone as well as his policy:
“What…free passes to no one…sorry, Evgeni Romualdovich! Excuse me, I did not recognise your voice. How come…with wife? Fantastic! Right at quarter to eight, please come to the counter.”
And then he orders his assistant:
“Metelkin, please ask the cashier to arrange two extra chairs in the second row for this watery devil.” (p.298)
Obviously, people occupying important administrative positions had already started taking advantage of the same. Bulgakov gathered courage to expose them.
Some dialogues reveal the norms laid down by the authorities for the writers:
DYMOGATSKI: You see, it’s an allegory…on the island…you see, fantasy. On the island live red natives ruled and exploited by white moors. Then there is volcanic eruption…
SIZI BUZI: Drama ends with the victory of white moors?
GENNADI: It ends with the victory of red ethopians…It can’t end otherwise.” (p.302)
Gennadi Panfilovich believes that The Theatre is like a temple, he also advises Adelaida Karpovna to have some fear of God when she protests on being given the of maid servant. She throws two sentences at him:
“Only yesterday, in the general meeting, in Savva Lukich’s presence you declared that there is no God. But as soon as he left the theatre, your God has suddenly appeared on the stage!
GENNADI: I protest against this tone! Theatre is…
KARPOVNA: A place of intrigues!” (p.303)
This was probable Bulgakov’s own experience which he expressed through this sentence.
The actor, playing a parrot is asked not to say ‘nonsense things’ on the stage, but some SLOGAN LIKE THINGS.
After watching the grand rehearsal Savva Lukich declares that the play is counter revolutionary and consequently it stands prohibited. The monologue of the author following this decision is startling:
“KIRI KUKI: The laundress shouts everyday: when will you pay for washing?! The stars look at me through window at night, window panes are broken, no resources to fix new ones! Half an year…Half an year I burnt and extinguished, I saw some light now…with pen in my hands, with empty stomach. The storm wails and I have no gloves!…
SAVVA: What is this? Where is this dialogue?
KIRI KUKI: It is from here…from me…from the depth of my heart.
LORD: Savva Lukich, this is monologue. Please have some tea!
KIRI KUKI: Half an year…Half an year…I ran to publishing houses…3 roubles 75 kopeeks…yes, that was my honorarium…I begged…give me 3 roubles in advance…I shall soon finish my Crimson Island…and here, this crooked oldie appears…
SAVVA: Excuse me, this is about whom?
KIRI KUKI: …and with one stroke of pen killed me…here is my chest, kill me with your pen!
LORD: What are you doing, unfortunate creature?! Tea please!
KIRI KUKI: I have nothing to lose…spit at the conquered…trample down the half dead eagle!
….and who are the judges? Since ancient times they have been antagonistic to free life. Judgements are dug from the forgotten newspapers of Kolchak’s time and conquest of Crimea.” (p.343)
The director feels that he is in trouble because of Kiri Kuki (The author). He tries to please Savva Lukich by saying that the writer is insane.
Though Savva Lukich initially declares that it is a counter revolutionary play, but ultimately he suggests some dialogues on solidarity and international revolution, which the assistant director immediately incorporates and finally the play is permitted for staging. Without consulting the author the changes are made and sale of tickets begins.
The character of Savva Lukich was obviously included by M.Bulgakov to point out the role people like Savva Lukich play in the cultural life of country. Interference of the people’s commissar, fate of the author and his play could be beautifully shown by using the technique of ‘drama within a drama’ and the form ‘grand rehearsal’
Director of the Kamernii Theatre Tairov, anticipating trouble in getting clearance from the real commissar, issued a number of press releases in order to create a favourable atmosphere for the staging of The Crimson Island in his theatre. One such release, which appears in “The Cultural Life” was as follows:
“Staging of the Crimson Island is continuation of Kamernii Theatre’s efforts to reflect the vulgar and repulsive phenomena of life and a satirical exposition of the tendency to bear with them.
Place of action of the Crimson Island is theatre.
This is the grand rehearsal of the play written by Citizen Jules Verne in Gennadi Panfilovich’s theatre, with music, volcanic eruption and English sailors.
This theatre is situated in a city which has a whole force of actors, theatrical machinery and which, after having swept by the storm of revolution, has decided to fall in line with other “obedient”, “propaganda” theatres, staging ‘Ideological’ plays.
Dramatist Dymagotskii very much likes Jules Verne, so much, that he has used this name as pseudonym. He can write any kind of play for anybody using Julevernish exotic background. Dymogatskii is expert in writing unusual scenes, exploited masses, interventions, volcanic eruption, English sailors etc etc.
The director of the theatre and the author compete with each other in adjusting themselves with the changing circumstances. Both of them are full of mystical fear before the third one – Savva Lukich, because it is he, who can either permit or prohibit their play.
For obtaining this permission they are ready to do anything: they can twist the play as Savva Lukich likes; having just distributed the roles, are ready for grand rehearsal, as Savva Lukich is leaving for Crimea. And Savva Lukich, in an ugly bureaucratic way decides the fates of such millions of Panfilovichs and Dymogatskiis. He raises all sorts of nonsensical objections and expects the director and the author to change the play according to his whims, without realising that he being instrumental in deforming the ideals of Revolution.
In our era – the era of Cultural Revolution, the main task is to expose the false of such approaches to arts and culture. Our theatre is following this line of action by staging the Crimson Island. (p. 576-577)
The Crimson Island also reflects the fate of the dramatist. Those crucial moments which M.Bulgakov went through during the grand rehearsal of his earlier plays Days of Turbins and Zoya’s Flat find reflection in this play.
No matter how much Bulgakov seems different from Dymogatskii, no matter how much he laughed at ‘Mr. Jules Verne’ and his play, the sufferings, of the author, broken by ban on his play were not only understood by him, but they were too near to his heart. The last act of the play could be termed as “tragedy of the author” of a prohibited play. The general line of the play suddenly gets disrupted and jumps to tragic tones. Jules Verne’s outburst symbolises the protest against controls on ‘freedom of creation’.
Having decided to stage the drama in the theatre, Tairov also seems to have joined Bulgakov in his demand for freedom of creation.
Note: All quotes are taken from M.A.Bulgakov: Plays of the 20’s, Leningrad, 1989.
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